Saturday, January 08, 2011

We're having a small difference here

So Robert Gibbs, the man whose tantrums about "the professional left"
reminded me of some cliché guy in a bar whining that his wife doesn't understaaand him
(as I put it in August), is leaving as O's press secretary. It is an event whose description serves to offer us another sign of how, as F. Scott Fitzgerald had one of his characters say, the rich "are different from you and me," and how they view us across a divide as they would animals on a safari or, perhaps more accurately, as they would artifacts at an archaeological museum, as something in a vague way, as if by a single biological string, connected to them but not really of them.

What raises this here is Obama's praise for Gibbs as having "had a six-year stretch now where basically he's been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay." The "modest" pay in question, Walter Shapiro reports at, is $172,000 a year.
That income alone -- leaving out any earnings by his wife -- would put Gibbs in the upper 8 percent of all American families, according to 2009 Census figures[, Shapiro says].
Robert Gibbs is a rich man. Period. His "modest" income undeniably makes him one. Even so, it's an income which, Shapiro sharply notes, "the entire political-insider culture of Washington" regards as "a form of martyrdom." That is, being merely rich instead of filthy rich is some type of virtuous suffering.

Shapiro allows as how Washington, DC is not a cheap place to live, while adding that the reporters Gibbs deals with doubtless make a good deal less than $172,000, but manage to live there as well. Even more to the point, a cost-of-living comparison shows that both Washington, DC and Arlington, Virginia, are cheaper places to live than Boston, New York City, or San Francisco and that even McLean, perhaps the ritziest DC suburb, is only moderately more expensive than Boston or NYC and no more expensive than SF. So the supposed "martyrdom" of the expense of living in DC fails and in any event does not change the fact that an income higher than 92% of Americans is not modest, "relatively" or otherwise. It makes you rich - even as those around you proclaim your financial humility.

And that is the real point here, because they do not only proclaim that humility, they believe it. It is a reflection of how the rich view the world, their fellow rich, their proper place, and though that our proper place. Shapiro goes on to say that
Obama's sympathetic comments about Gibbs' financial sacrifice illustrate that populism remains an abstraction for the president, despite the persistence of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In the world of Obama (or Clinton or either Bush), it is par for the course that William Daley, the new White House chief of staff, served as Midwest chairman for JP Morgan Chase between his stints in government. Or that Rahm Emanuel made $16 million as an investment banker during the three years between his departure from the Clinton White House and his 2002 election to the House.
Here, however, Shapiro falls short because this clearly predates Bush I. This is nothing new, not by a long shot. For just one earlier example, there was the occasion around 1975 or so, a time when nominal median annual income, nominal meaning in current, non-inflation adjusted dollars, was around $12,000 a year, when then-Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller (in)famously started an explanation of some tax provision by saying "Consider an average family making $100,000 a year." The clock of history could easily be turned back years, decades, even further, with the same result: The rich are indeed different from you and me.

More recently, in June 1983 there was a move by Congressional Democrats to limit a proposed tax cut to those making less than $50,000 a year. This was a time when nominal median annual income was just over $20,000. Then-President Ronald Reagan said that (and yes, this is a quote) “When they say we can do something for everybody below $50,000 but not above, they’re talking about clobbering an awful lot of people in the middle- and lower-income brackets.” As I remarked at the time, "There it is: Our President regards $50,000" - some two and a-half times the median - "as a low to moderate income."

And he believed it. That's what matters here. Applying the same standard today - two and a-half times the median - would make $125,000 a year a "low to moderate" income. That is the social context, the economic context, that is the worldview, in which Barack Obama can assert - and believe - that an income of $172,000 a year, that being richer than 92% of Americans, is "modest."

Several years ago I was set to editing a introduction a colleague wrote about the use of spectroscopy in astrophysics. He had all the terms down and the definitions correct, but in reading it, I could tell that he still didn't really understand the topic, didn't have a deep grasp of it, a feel for it, with the result that his understanding and so his ability to explain it didn't go beyond the words themselves. It's akin to a chess player who has memorized whole chapters of MCO and knows that this line in the Gruenfeld Defense is better than that line but can't explain why.

In that same sense, that very same sense of being able to say the words without experiencing the meaning, in that very same sense the rich simply do not grasp, not on an emotional, a gut level, not a level of true understanding, what the vast majority of us go through, live through, struggle though, on a daily basis. They simply do not, cannot, make the philosophical connection, cannot cross the experiential divide. They can say the words but they can't feel the meaning, so that's all they are and it doesn't matter if those words are gentle or harsh, supportive or dismissive: They are just words. We, our lives, are and remain, in Shapiro's well-chosen word, abstractions. Some never knew. Some, like Obama, have forgotten. The result is the same:

We are on our own and will be until we make it different.

Footnote: The full F. Scott Fitzgerald quote comes from his 1926 story "The Rich Boy." It reads:
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.
Even modern psychology sees the difference:
Looking for empathy and support? You're more likely to get it from a poor person than you are from a rich one, according to new research published in Psychological Science[ this past fall].

In a series of experiments, the new study found that lower-class people were better at reading emotions on others' faces — one measure of what researchers call empathic accuracy — than people in the upper class. "A lot of what we see is a baseline orientation for the lower class to be more empathetic and the upper class to be less [so]," says Michael Kraus, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral student at the University of California, San Francisco. ...

An earlier study by the same researchers found that those of lower socioeconomic status were also more helpful and generous, suggesting that it's not just empathic accuracy but empathy itself that may be enhanced by circumstance.
But then again, we already knew that: A while back, my "Quote Unquote," um, quote, was from John Steinbeck: "If you're in trouble, or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones." He knew. We should. Because it is, apparently, still true.

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